A Primer on Christian Separation

       Christians are people who have trusted Christ as their Savior and received the gift of eternal life (John 3:16; 10:28; Acts 4:12; 16:31; Eph. 2:8-9). The local church is a group of Christians who have assembled together for Bible teaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and prayer (Acts 2:42; cf. 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15-16). Fellowship and unity is very important to Christianity; however, God’s Word prohibits intimate relationships with two groups of people:

  1. Unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14-15; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 John 1:9-11).
  2. Believers who have turned away from God and are living perpetually carnal/worldly lives (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 9-11; 2 Thess. 3:6; Tit. 3:10-11).

       Living in a fallen world means the Christian must live in the reality that there are dangers and dangerous people to be avoided. Discernment is necessary at all times. God’s Word provides the righteous standard that helps determine those who are safe from those who might cause spiritual harm. As Christians, we love intimate fellowship and unity with others, but only within the context of holiness and obedience to God’s Word.

       The Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Timothy and mentioned the “last days” as a time in which unbelieving sinful men would magnify their ways (2 Tim. 3:1-5). After providing a list of the character flaws of these sinful men, Paul made no hesitation to tell his friend Timothy to “avoid such men as these.” Paul described these men to Timothy, saying:

For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. (2 Tim. 3:2-5)

       I personally dislike “malicious gossips” and am glad to “avoid” the rest as well. Though Paul’s character list is primarily negative, we should not miss his statement that many are religious, “holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Among the lost there are both moral and immoral degenerates. The Christian has a responsibility to turn away and “avoid” men who live such sinful lives. Not that we stand in judgment of them as individuals, for that would be wrong! But we do evaluate their behavior as wrong, and on that basis, we avoid them because we do not want their behavior to harm us or corrupt our walk with the Lord. Paul makes it clear in another place that “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33).

       Christians love to share the gospel of grace with the unsaved that they might believe in Christ and be saved. However, the majority of unbelievers in the world are hostile to God and their lives are completely devoted to worldly values. Paul tells us to “avoid such men as these” (2 Tim. 3:5). Some Christians make the mistake of trying to get too friendly with unbelievers and Paul warns against this.

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? (2 Cor. 6:14-15)

     Paul is not advocating monasticism, as though the believer needs to hide from unbelievers and live in seclusion. Certainly, as Christians, we live in the world and interact with unbelievers all the time, sharing Christ with those who are willing to listen and performing good works toward those who will accept our kindness. However, we are not to be intimately bound together with the unbeliever in church matters, and this even speaks to personal matters such as marriage and business. I am friendly toward many unbelievers and have helped more than I can count. However, my close friends are Christians who love the Lord and walk with Him.

       On one occasion I lost a Christian friend because he turned away from the Lord and chased after the world, pursuing the flesh and a lifestyle of illegal drug abuse. I repeatedly spoke to him about Scripture and prayed for him (Gal. 6:1), but he refused advice and Christian friendship and wanted the world instead. The Apostle Paul once wrote of a Christian friend he lost to the world, stating that “Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10). Certainly Paul’s heart was grieved over the loss of his Christian friend.

       Sometimes the carnal/worldly Christian separates from us, but sometimes we must separate from him. To be clear, The Bible commands the obedient-to-the-word Christian to separate from the carnal/worldly Christian (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 9-11; 2 Thess. 3:6; Tit. 3:10-11). This does not mean Christians are not to approach believers who are in sin and seek to draw them back to Christ (Gal. 6:1); of course they are! But when a believer is given to defiant sinning and is pursuing his own selfish desires rather than Christ, then the Christian must at some point break fellowship. It is impossible for a humble believer who is seeking God’s will through Scripture to have a relationship with an arrogant believer who is bent on opposing God and His Word.

       The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth and was concerned about their carnality and the divisions that existed among them (1 Cor. 3:1-4). At one point, Paul addressed a particular matter of carnality that had been brought to his attention, saying, “it is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1). There was a Christian in the church who was having sexual relations with his stepmother. Paul sternly rebuked the church as a whole, telling them, “you have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst” (1 Cor. 5:2). Separation is never pleasant, though it is at times necessary. A few verses later, Paul corrects a misunderstanding that had occurred from a previous letter he’d written to the church at Corinth by stating:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world [i.e. unbelievers], or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor. 5:9-11)

       This correction by Paul makes it clear that there are some instances where the Christian has the duty to separate from other Christians who are living carnal/worldly lifestyles. Specifically, Paul says “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Cor. 5:11). Christians are to judge the behavior of those inside the church, but God judges those outside the church.

What have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. (1 Cor. 5:12-13)

       When a believer turns away from God and thinks and acts like the world, the foundation for Christian fellowship is removed. There cannot be agreement between two Christians when one is standing on God’s Word—which demands holiness—and the other is standing on Satan’s worldly system—which defies holiness! One is seeking God to do His will and the other is seeking the world to please the flesh. The two value systems are completely opposite each other, as much as light is the opposite of darkness. Scripture commands us to turn away from carnal/worldly Christians; at least until they turn back to the Lord and resume their spiritual walk.

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6)

Reject a factious man [i.e. divisive, quarrelsome person] after a first and second warning [after his divisiveness has been addressed], knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. (Tit. 3:10-11)

       Scripture teaches that Christians should practice hospitality (Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2); but this command has its limitations. Christians should turn away from false teachers and avoid them. Pleasing God, after all, is more important than pleasing others.

Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those [i.e. false teachers] who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them [avoid them]. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech [telling people what they want to hear] they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. (Rom. 16:17-18)

Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ [denying the bodily incarnation of God the Son; cf. vs. 7], does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 1:9-11)

       Again, Christians are called to show hospitality to others (Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2), but not to false teachers, whether believers or unbelievers. Once the false teacher is identified, the Christian is to turn away from him and avoid contact with him. This means NO HOSPITALITY and NO WARM GREETINGS to these false teachers who are set in their ways. The modern attitude of toleration and acceptance was not held by the writers of Scripture, especially in matters of doctrine pertaining to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. A false gospel can forever damn a person to the Lake of Fire, and false teachers who pervert the gospel are not to be welcomed (i.e. Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.). Paul said, “if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”(Gal. 1:9)

       At certain times, separation from carnal/worldly minded people is necessary for peace, purity, unity and effective spiritual growth in the church. Christians are called to live holy lives unto the Lord, which means they are to walk in the light of God’s Word and not as the world around them. When carnal/worldly minded people are in the church—whether believers or unbelievers—they have a corrupting influence that cause divisions and bring other Christians down.

Dr. Steven R. Cook